Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 19, 1999
Desert hermit a mirror for our times
Charles de Foucauld, Writings Selected With an Introduction., by Robert Ellsberg, (Modern Spiritual Masters Series) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999; 127 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Why should "end of the century" Canadian readers be interested in the mystical reflections of Charles de Foucauld, a French priest and colonial patriot who, a hundred years ago (1858-1916) lived most of his life as a soldier, explorer, isolated monk and desert hermit in the North African Sahara?
How much credibility should we bestow upon the founder of a failed community dedicated to obscurity and simple presence among Muslim peoples who, during his lifetime, displayed scant regard for his Christian religion?
Why should anybody in this age of self-centred psychology and selfish acquisitiveness be drawn to self-effacing talk of mortification and martyrdom?
Robert Ellsberg does a fine job of introducing and interpreting his subject.
In his preface to Charles de Foucauld: Writings Selected. . ., he states that by any conventional standard, this priest's life ended in failure.
"At the time of his violent death" (by murder), says Ellsberg, "he had published none of his spiritual writings; he had founded no congregation nor had he attracted any followers. He could not even claim responsibility for a single conversion."
Yet, in time, many would regard him as one of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century. Ellsberg continues: "More important was the power of his spiritual vision, embodied in a life of singular purpose. Foucauld was one of those seekers who, periodically, manage to reinvent the 'imitation of Christ' in a manner suited to the needs of their age and thus invite others to read the Gospel in a new way."
The Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters Series continues to engage readers with selected journeys of persons shaped by the influences and concerns of their times and who have helped to shape the spiritual impulses of modernity.
Twenty years after his death, de Foucauld's vision was assumed by Rene Voillaume and Madeleine Hutin, who founded orders respectively known as Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus.
In post-colonial, post modern times - with the resurgence of traditional religion in much of the Two Thirds World and many new religious movements appearing in our own back yards - this vision provides a pattern mirrored in the communities founded by Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier.
Reflecting the experience of many classic prophets and renewers of the Church, de Foucauld presents a rather extreme and sometimes altruistic example which others have observed, shaped and modified for contemporary situations and circumstances.
Just as he tried to be one with Jesus in order to reproduce the master's life in his own, de Foucauld's ministry serves as a window through which moderns might assess their times and currently apply Christ's principles.
Example, not words, is a theme underlying many of these selected writings. Is it possible to do good without preaching or fuss but by silent witness and service?
The hidden life and lowliest labour, patterned after the Holy Family of Nazareth before the time of Jesus' public ministry, can be followed anywhere and demonstrates that every Christian can be an apostle of Good News. It is this unobtrusive witness which shouts the Gospel from the housetops and gives everyone a sense of vocation and purpose.
Hospitality and fraternity, offered to all who visit - good or bad - friend or foe, Muslim or Christian - is key to meeting and influencing people with sanctuary and selflessness. We discover and serve Jesus in these our neighbours.
Is this kind of mystical reading truly satisfying? The answer for this reviewer is yes. As long as the Gospel challenges the common wisdom and the icons of success in our day, Charles de Foucauld will continue to be relevant. Idiosyncrasies and altruism acknowledged, his message hits home.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a lecturer at the University of Calgary.)